Monday, June 30, 2014

#1,414. Iron Man 2 (2010)

Directed By: Jon Favreau

Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Mickey Rourke, Gwyneth Paltrow

Tag line: "It's not the armor that makes the hero, but the man inside"

Trivia: In total, 11 different visual effects studios worked on the film

In the current chronology of the Marvel Universe (at least as it pertains to the "Avengers Initiative"), Jon Favreau’s Iron Man 2 is the keystone film in the studio’s first wave of movies, coming after Iron Man (naturally) and The Incredible Hulk, and before Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger (references to the latter two appear in this sequel), all leading up to 2012’s mega-hero spectacular, The Avengers.

Now that he's revealed to the entire world that he’s Iron Man, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is an even bigger celebrity than before. Of course, not everyone is singing his praises. For one, the Federal Government believes the Iron Man suit is a weapon, and has tasked Stark’s close friend, Lt. Col. James “Rhodey” Rhodes (Don Cheadle), with trying to get the billionaire playboy to surrender the technology to the military, something Stark refuses to do. Then there’s Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), a Russian genius whose father (Evgeniy Lazarev) was screwed out of millions by Stark’s old man some 50 years ago. Using the Iron Man suit as a basis, Vanko creates his own armor, and, with the help of Stark’s chief rival, weapons manufacturer Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) sets out to destroy Iron Man. Along with these external issues, Tony Stark must deal with the fact that the power source which is keeping him alive is also poisoning his system. Having researched every possible fix to the problem (all of which have failed), Stark realizes his days are numbered, and there isn’t a damn thing he can do about it.

In Iron Man 2, Downey Jr. pulled off the remarkable feat of broadening his character without altering his persona in any discernible way, giving us a Tony Stark who’s every bit as egotistical as he was in Iron Man (his appearance before the Senate committee is Stark at his arrogant best), yet also suddenly aware of his own mortality (the scene where he decides to drive his race car in the Monaco Grand Prix is Stark's way of living what little life he has left to its fullest). The fact that Downey Jr. convincingly portrays Stark’s overconfidence is no great revelation (the actor brought this same level of haughtiness to the character of Sherlock Holmes in a pair of recent movies directed by Guy Ritchie), but I was pleasantly surprised at how well he handled the scenes where the billionaire playboy is wrestling with the notion of his own demise (you can see the fear in his eyes whenever he checks his blood’s toxicity level). .

Along with Downey Jr., Iron Man 2 has an impressive supporting cast, featuring some familiar faces (Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts, Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury) as well as a few new ones. Don Cheadle seamlessly steps into the role of Lt. Col. Rhodes, a part played by Terence Howard in the 2008 original, while Scarlett Johansson gives us our first look at the lethal Natasha Romanoff, who’d continue her ass-kicking ways in The Avengers. As for the movie’s villains, Sam Rockwell is appropriately slimy as Justin Hammer, yet it’s Mickey Rourke’s Ivan Vanko, an imposing figure with a huge chip on his shoulder, who steals the show. In fact, one of the film’s weaknesses is its failure to delve more deeply into this fascinating character (Rourke is always an interesting actor, and I’d have liked to see what he might have done with a little more screen time). Even the final confrontation between Stark and Vanko is something of a let-down (it’s over far too quickly).

The problem, I think, is that Iron Man 2 tried to take on far too much, dividing its time between Stark’s illness; his battle with the Federal Government; Hammer’s manipulation of Vanko; the growing relationship between Pepper Potts and Tony Stark; and S.H.I.E.L.D’s involvement in all these events. As a result, the movie over-extended itself, and was forced to cut a few corners (Ivan Vanko being one of them). Its overly ambitious storyline aside, however, Iron Man 2 still features plenty of great action (the racing scene, where Stark first encounters Vanko, is especially well-handled), and has enough of that “Marvel Magic” to make it a rollicking good time.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

#1,413. Private Buckaroo (1942)

Directed By: Edward F. Cline

Starring: The Andrews Sisters, Dick Foran, Joe E. Lewis

Tag line: "IT JUMPS! IT JIVES! It rocks with red hot rhythm!"

Trivia: In 1927, co-star Joe E. Lewis refused the request of Jack "Machine Gun" McGurn (an Al Capone lieutenant) to renew a contract that would have bound him to sing and perform at the Green Mill Cocktail Lounge. He was later assaulted by McGurn, who cut Lewis' throat and tongue and left him for dead

A year after making a splash in Abbott and Costello’s Buck Privates, The Andrews Sisters returned to the big screen for another wartime musical, 1942’s Private Buckaroo, for which they performed a number of their hit songs.

Private Buckaroo does have a story of sorts, following band crooner Lon Prentiss (Dick Foran) as he tries to change his enlistment classification (his one flat foot has thus far kept him out of the army) so that he can join up and fight. He does eventually talk his way into the military, but once Lon gets to boot camp, he decides he doesn’t want to go through the training process like everyone else. The movie also has its share of comedy, with Shemp Howard (a few years before replacing his brother Curly as one of The Three Stooges) as a Sergeant whose best girl (Mary Wickes) falls head over heels for a singer (Joe E. Lewis). A very young Donald O’Connor, future co-star of Singin’ in the Rain, makes an appearance as well, playing a teen pretending to be much older so that he can enlist (which wasn’t a stretch for him, seeing as O’Connor was only 17 when this film was made). But in the end, Private Buckaroo is all about the music.

Thirteen musical numbers are crammed into the film’s 68 minutes, some of which are set in a night club, including Joe E. Lewis’s comedic “I Love the South”; the title song (sung by Dick Foran); and The Andrews Sisters “Three Little Sisters”. The majority of the tunes, however, are performed during the basic training scenes, the highlight being The Andrews Sisters’ rendition of their wartime hit, “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree”. Along with the music, the movie also features a running gag involving professional trumpeter and band leader Harry James (playing himself), who’s drafted into the army and appointed company bugler. The problem is he doesn’t know how to play the bugle! Aided by a young Huntz Hall (The Dead End Kids, The Bowery Boys), James manages to master the instrument just in time for the big finale.

A flag-waving extravaganza (it concludes with stock footage of marching troops and a manufacturing plant turning out military planes) clearly designed to rally public support as the U.S. entered World War II, Private Buckaroo is a somewhat dated motion picture that, thanks to its catchy music, is still an entertaining watch.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

#1,412. Malibu Express (1985)

Directed By: Andy Sidaris

Starring: Darby Hinton, Sybil Danning, Art Metrano

Tag line: "Packing Heat From Texas To Malibu Beach!"

Trivia: Director Andy Sidaris makes a cameo appearance in the movie, playing a guy driving a winnebago

Andy Sidaris was a writer / director who specialized in a very specific type of movie, namely action / adventures with lots of guns and plenty of soft-core sex. His 1985 film, Malibu Express, was the first in what’s become known as his “Triple B” series (which also includes Savage Beach), and while it’s a muddled mess (yet another aspect of Sidaris’ work), you can’t help but admire the movie’s chutzpah.

Cody Abeline (Darby Hinton), a California private eye, is enlisted by Contessa Luciana (Sybil Danning), an undercover FBI agent, to break up a spy ring that’s been stealing U.S. technology and selling it to the Russians. To this end, Cody moves in with Lady Lillian Chamberlain (Niki Dantene), who the authorities believe is unwittingly harboring the spy. But who is the guilty party? Is it Lady Chamberlain’s nephew, Stuart (Michael A. Andrews); her niece Liza (Lorraine Michaels); or Stuart’s wife Anita (Shelley Taylor Morgan)? Maybe it’s Shane the chauffeur (Brett Baxter Clark) or the maid, Marian (Robyn Hilton)? Regardless of which one it is, Cody will do whatever he can to bring the guilty party to justice, even if it means sleeping with every pretty girl he encounters along the way!

Make no mistake: Malibu Express sucks. As gorgeous as the women are (many were once Playboy Playmates), none of them (with the exception of Sybil Danning) can act. Neither can the guys, for that matter (Darby Hinton makes for a likable hero, though he’s never really convincing as a private eye). And as for the film’s story, it’s practically indecipherable. At the outset, we learn about the spy ring, but the moment Cody moves into the Chamberlain estate, we’re thrown head-first into a soap opera (Anita is having an affair with Shane the chauffeur). Then, when one of these characters is gunned down in cold blood, Malibu Express changes gears and becomes a murder-mystery, with our hero, Cody, on the run from hapless thugs whose boss wants him dead. Malibu Express even takes a few stabs at comedy, and while I did laugh at the opening scene (where we learn Cody isn’t exactly an expert marksman), the side story about a hillbilly family (the Buffingtons, played by Abb Dickson, Busty O’Shea, and Randy Rudy) that continually challenges Cody to a drag race gets old real quick.

But none of this matters, because Malibu Express is all about the ladies, each of whom is portrayed as a horny sex fiend who can’t resist throwing herself at our hero’s feet. He’s introduced to his new neighbors, a pair of buxom beauties named Faye (Kimberly McArthur) and May (Barbara Edwards), when they invade his yacht and ask if they can use his shower (which they jump into together, no less). Not even the pretty police detective (Lori Sutton) is immune to his charms (while investigating the murder, the two get it on in the victims bed), and late in the film, when Cody, behind the wheel of a souped-up race care, is on the run from the three goons (who are pursuing him in a helicopter), the aptly named June Khnockers (Lynda Wiesmeier), sitting in the passengers seat, pulls off her top and tries to seduce the surprised private eye, despite the fact he’s concentrating on the road (not a bad idea when you consider he was doing about 180 miles per hour at the time).

So, to sum up, Malibu Express is a poorly acted movie with a needlessly complex plot and a cast of former Playboy Playmates who never miss an opportunity to take their tops off.

Andy Sidaris may not have been a talented filmmaker, but he was one hell of a showman!

Friday, June 27, 2014

#1,411. Maximum Overdrive (1986)

Directed By: Stephen King

Starring: Emilio Estevez, Pat Hingle, Laura Harrington

Tag line: "Who Made Who?"

Trivia: The film was nominated for two Golden Raspberry Awards including worst director for Stephen King and worst actor for Emilio Estevez

Directed by author Stephen King (who wrote the short story that inspired it), 1986’s Maximum Overdrive has been savaged by critics ever since it first hit movie screens, and was even nominated for two Golden Raspberry Awards, for Worst Actor (Emilio Esteves) and Worst Director (King). While I’ll agree it’s far from a good movie, I gotta admit I had some serious fun watching it.

As the result of a comet that’s passing overhead, all of the world’s machines, from soda dispensers to construction vehicles, spring suddenly to life. What’s more, they seem pissed off at humanity, and are doing everything they can to wipe us off the face of the earth. To escape the killer vehicles roaming the highway, a group of people take cover inside the Dixie Boy Truck Stop, including former convict Bill (Emelio Esteves); the facility’s owner, Bubba (Pat Hingle); a pretty runaway named Brett (Laura Harrington); and a pair of newlyweds (John Short and Yeardley Smith). With a number of big rigs lurking outside their door, the survivors must find a way out before the murderous trucks break the walls down.

The single most ridiculous aspect of Maximum Overdrive is its central story; not only does it fail as a horror film (As I mentioned a while back in my write-up of Christine, which was also based on a Stephen King tale, I don’t find killer vehicles the least bit scary), but there are sequences so ridiculous you can’t stop laughing (several times throughout the movie, the victims of the killer trucks just stand there, allowing the vehicle, which they easily could have avoided, to roll over them). Sure, the performances leave a lot to be desired (Pat Hingle goes way over-the-top in his portrayal of Bubba), but when the story itself is this bad, the actors are the least of your worries.

That said, the movie does have a definite ‘80s vibe that I found hard to resist (the film’s soundtrack featured the music of AC/DC , including my all-time favorite song of theirs, "You Shook Me All Night Long"), and had a few moments that brought a smile to my face (an early scene, where a drawbridge goes up on its own while dozens of cars are sitting on it, actually generates some real thrills). I also enjoyed the scenes set at the Dixie Boy, especially those in which Hingle’s Bubba grabbed the illegal firearms he kept in the basement and started blasting the trucks. And who wouldn’t love the film’s opening, where a guy (played by director King himself) walks up to an ATM machine, only to have it call him an “asshole”?

In the end, I can’t really recommend Maximum Overdrive (it’s just not a good movie), but I won’t completely dismiss it, either.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

#1,410. Tower of London (1939)

Directed By: Rowland V. Lee

Starring: Basil Rathbone, Boris Karloff, Barbara O'Neil

Trivia: Originally, George Sanders was going to play the role of Edward IV

Despite the presence of both Boris Karloff and Vincent Price, 1939’s Tower of London is not a horror movie. It’s an historical drama, chronicling the rise of England’s King Richard III, who (if history is to be believed) murdered members of his own family to attain the throne. Yet in spite of its lack of things that go bump in the night, Tower of London did give the great Karloff an opportunity to play one of the most loathsome characters of his career.

The year is 1471. After deposing the weak Lancastrian king, Henry VI (Miles Mander), Yorkist Edward IV (Ian Hunter) ascends to the throne of England. His most trusted advisor is his brother Richard, Earl of Gloucester (Basil Rathbone), but what the new king doesn’t realize is that Richard is a cruel, conniving man who intends to set himself up as Edward’s heir by “eliminating” both of his nephews (Edward’s children) as well as their other brother, the Duke of Clarence (Price). With the help of the beastly Mord (Karloff), who serves as the Royal Executioner, Richard systematically murders anyone standing in his way. England’s only hope of removing Richard lies with Henry Tudor (Ralph Forbes), who, aided by Edward’s Queen, Elizabeth (Barbara O’Neil) and the noble John Wyatt (John Sutton), plans to bring an end to Richard’s reign of terror.

Tower of London marked the second pairing of Rathbone and Karloff, who had previously worked together in the criminally underrated Son of Frankenstein (released earlier that same year). While I wasn’t all that impressed with Rathbone’s performance in Son, he definitely rose to the occasion in this movie, giving all he had to the role of the treacherous Richard, whose ambition would lead to murder. Yet as good as Rathbone was playing the heavy, Karloff’s Mord is the film’s most imposing figure, a tower of a man  who carries out Richard’s orders, no questions asked. Both suffer from physical deformities (Richard has a crooked back, and Mord a club foot), yet it’s the blackness of their hearts that will send shivers up your spine (after working together to eliminate a chief rival of Richard’s, who they drown in a vat of wine, the two turn their attention to the young Princes, giving the movie what is easily its most poignant and disturbing scene).

A strong supporting cast (especially Ian Hunter as the wily and unpredictable Edward IV and Vincent Price, in a very early role, as the feeble Duke of Clarence) as well as some lively battle scenes (the confrontation between Richard and Henry Tudor at Bosworth Field, which closes out the film, is particularly well executed) make Tower of London an entertaining watch, but it’s Rathbone and Karloff who make it an unforgettable one.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

#1,409. I Confess (1953)

Directed By: Alfred Hitchcock

Starring: Montgomery Clift, Anne Baxter, Karl Malden

Tag line: "Crushed lips don't talk..."

Trivia: Alfred Hitchcock offered Cary Grant the lead role, but he turned it down

I have a confession of my own to make: despite the fact Alfred Hitchcock ranks among my favorite directors, there are still a handful of his films I’ve never seen, and until today, 1953’s I Confess was one of them. The story of a priest who’s wrongly accused of murder, I Confess may not be the Master of Suspense’s most riveting movie, but it does have its moments.

Late one evening, Father Logan (Montgomery Clift), a Catholic priest stationed in Quebec, hears the confession of Otto Keller (O.E. Hesse), whose wife, Alma (Dolly Has), works as a maid at the church’s rectory. As it turns out, Otto had a doozy of a sin to confess: earlier that night, he murdered a man. Because Otto confessed to this crime while receiving the sacrament of Penance, Father Logan is forbidden by church law to pass this information on to the authorities. Things take an even stranger turn when Inspector Larrue (Karl Malden), the man assigned to investigate the murder, suspects Father Logan himself may be the killer. Apparently, Father Logan was being blackmailed by the victim, who threatened to expose a tryst the priest had years earlier (prior to taking his vows) with Ruth Grandfort (Anne Baxter), a former lover who was married at the time. Unable to reveal the killer’s true identity, Father Logan is arrested and put on trial for a crime he didn’t commit.

I Confess gets off to a stellar start, with a sequence that looks as if it were lifted straight out of a classic Film Noir; interspersed between shots of a city skyline are images of street signs, all pointing to the exact location where the murder took place. Shortly after the dead man’s body is revealed (by way of a nifty tracking shot through an open window), we see the killer, dressed as a priest, making a hasty getaway down a darkened, shadow-filled street. These opening scenes are executed perfectly, with Hitch displaying the visual flair that, by 1953, had become his trademark. The film’s climax is also strong, with some anxious moments in a courtroom punctuated by a tense showdown inside a nearby hotel. These scenes aside, however, I Confess is a talky, often dull affair, with Montgomery Clift, who certainly looks the part of a dashing young priest, coming off as far too solemn in the lead role.

Another aspect of I Confess that non-Catholics will find particularly frustrating is Father Logan’s refusal to reveal the killer’s identity, but thanks to my upbringing, I had no problem whatsoever accepting his decision to remain quiet. During the 12 years I spent in Catholic schools, the nuns would often speak of the sanctity of the confessional, and how the priest was bound by his sacred vows to never reveal what was discussed within its walls. Several of the good sisters even used the example set forth in this film, saying that, if someone confessed to taking part in a murder, the priest had no choice but to keep it a secret. Sure, it’s a tad archaic, and even a bit scary to think that a killer would be protected by the church because he spoke up in a confessional, but that’s the way it was (for the record, I have no idea if this practice is adhered to as strongly today as it was in the past). So, while I Confess definitely has its share of problems, it would be a mistake to hold Hitchcock accountable for this particular plot twist. Maddening though it may be, he was simply following church doctrine.

Whether he agreed with this practice or not is another matter entirely. In fact, there were times during I Confess where I got the feeling Hitch himself wanted Father Logan to spill the beans.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

#1,408. The Fly (1986)

Directed By: David Cronenberg

Starring: Jeff Goldblum, Geena Davis, John Getz

Tag line: "Be afraid. Be very afraid"

Trivia: Initially, Mel Brooks didn't want people to know he was a producer for the film. He feared that, if they knew he was involved, people wouldn't take it seriously

As I mentioned in my write-up of 1958’s The Fly, that movie and this 1986 David Cronenberg-directed version tell the same basic story (of a scientist who has figured out a way to teleport objects from one place to another), yet differ in how said experiments affect their lead characters. Whereas Andre Delambre, the central figure in the 1958 version, simply trades body parts with a housefly, Cronenberg’s Seth Brundle, played by the always reliable Jeff Goldblum, experiences a physical change that turns him into a human fly, and it’s the way the movie presents this transformation that makes 1986’s The Fly a sci-fi / horror classic.

Seth Brundle (Goldblum) has been working on an experiment that will change the world, and at a press event hosted by his sponsor, Bartok Industries, he promises reporter Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis) an exclusive on the story if she will accompany him back to his laboratory. Veronica agrees, and is amazed to find Brundle has created a teleportation device that can actually send inanimate objects from one “Telepod” to another. 

Before long, Brundle even manages to transmit a living creature (a baboon) through the Teleporter, and, determined to show it will also work with a human subject, climbs into the Telepod himself one evening. 

The good news is that Brundle survived the experiment. The bad news is he wasn’t alone in the Telepod when he made his journey; a common housefly was in there with him. As a result, Brundle’s DNA fused with that of the fly’s! 

At first, things seem fine: Brundle appears to be stronger than before, and tells Veronica (with whom he is now romantically involved) that he believes the teleportation “purified” his body. But before long, he begins to change, both physically and emotionally. In short, he starts acting like a fly. 

To make matters worse, a disturbed Veronica, who has turned to her editor and former lover Stathis (John Getz) for help, learns she is pregnant with Brundle’s child. But was the baby conceived before his teleportation, or after? Will her unborn child be normal… or a monster?

Jeff Goldblum is terrific as both Seth Brundle, the slightly neurotic scientist on the verge of a major discovery, and “Brundlefly”, the name he gives himself following his ill-advised trip through the teleportation device, at which point he starts the slow process of turning into a fly. In fact, it’s the actor’s sometimes-frantic turn as Brundlefly, combined with the film’s exceptional special effects, that makes The Fly such a fascinating motion picture. 

In true Cronenberg fashion, we bear witness to many of the physical changes Brundle undergoes, a few of which are difficult to watch (Brundle himself finally realizes something is amiss when his fingernails begin to fall off, but for me, the most gruesome image is that of Brundlefly vomiting enzymes onto his food, which breaks it down into a form he can more easily digest). From his early films (like Rabid) through to such movies as Videodrome and The Brood, Cronenberg established himself as a master of “Body Horror”, altering the human form in ways that can be downright terrifying. With Brundlefly, the director has created his masterpiece, a human / insect hybrid that, by the time the movie ends, has undergone an incredible metamorphosis.

While the primary message of 1986’s The Fly is very similar to that of the 1958 original (“Toying with the laws of nature can lead to disaster”), Cronenberg’s film takes things a step further by challenging our perception of what it means to be human. As difficult as it is to watch Brundle’s physical devolution, it is equally as painful to see his identity slowly slip away from him, an eventuality he has no control over. A man turning into a fly is bad enough; a brilliant scientist reduced to his most basic survival instincts, losing his ability to reason and even his moral judgment along the way, is an altogether different tragedy.

Monday, June 23, 2014

#1,407. Cromwell (1970)

Directed By: Ken Hughes

Starring: Richard Harris, Alec Guinness, Robert Morley

Trivia: It was casting director Maude Spector that first suggested Timothy Dalton for the role of Prince Rupert

Everything I know about Oliver Cromwell, the 17th Century British Parliamentarian and military leader who helped overthrow a King, I learned from two sources: Monty Python’s satirical song, “Oliver Cromwell” (performed by John Cleese and released on the troupe’s 1991 album, Monty Python Sings); and Cromwell, Ken Hughes’ 1970 biopic (which, for a time there, ranked as one of my favorite historical dramas). Having just re-watched Cromwell for the first time in 15 years, I’m now of the opinion that, in all likelihood, the Python tune is the more historically accurate of the two.

Cromwell opens in 1640, at which point Oliver Cromwell (Richard Harris), a god-fearing Puritan and a Magistrate from Cambridge, is packing up his belongings so he can move his family to America, where he hopes to escape the petty corruptions and religious reforms that have run rampant under the reign of the current monarch, King Charles I (Alec Guinness). But when Parliament is suddenly recalled by the King, Cromwell and his associates see it as an opportunity to change the way the country is being governed. Alas, Parliament, which was dissolved by Charles I a dozen years earlier, was only recalled to help raise money for an upcoming war with Scotland. When Parliament instead presents the king with a list of demands, it’s immediately dissolved once again. Feeling they have no alternative, Parliament assembles an army (nicknamed the “Roundheads”), thus plunging England into Civil War.

After being trounced in their first battle by the Cavaliers, who were under the command of the King’s nephew Prince Rupert (Timothy Dalton), the Parliamentary forces regroup. Cromwell returns to Cambridge and raises a new, better-trained army, and at the Battle of Naseby, easily defeats the King and Prince Rupert, the first of many losses the two Royals would suffer on the battlefield. After achieving total victory, Cromwell makes one final attempt to reconcile with the King, only to learn that Charles I is secretly trying to secure troops from Scotland and Ireland for a second Civil War. As a result, Charles I is put on trial for high treason, which, if found guilty, could cost him his head. And while some of his compatriots feel executing the King is itself a treasonable offense, Cromwell is determined to see things through to the end.

As Cromwell, Richard Harris bellows and pontificates his way through the entire movie, delivering every line as if it were the film’s most important (even when talking to his sons before the Battle of Naseby, Harris’ Cromwell sounds less like a concerned father, and more like a preacher addressing his congregation). Also problematic is the movie’s historical accuracy. As portrayed, Oliver Cromwell was a saint of a man, a leader who fought for freedom and liberty for both himself and the people of England. Now, I may not be the world’s foremost authority on the subject, but I’m fairly certain the truth was more complex than that (A few of my Irish friends paint a very different picture of Cromwell).

These deficiencies aside, there are things about Cromwell that continue to impress me, from its well-choreographed battle scenes to the way it recreates the trial of Charles I (which, in turn, leads to the film’s most dramatic scene). Also strong is Alec Guinness as the King, who comes across as more believable than Harris (the real Charles I had a speech impediment, a slight stammering problem, which Guinness manages to convey without drawing too much attention to it). These aspects alone make Cromwell worth seeing.

But if it’s a history lesson you’re after, you might want to look elsewhere.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

#1,406. Häxan : Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922)

Directed By: Benjamin Christensen

Starring: Benjamin Christensen, Elisabeth Christensen, Maren Pedersen

Trivia: At the time, this was the most expensive film produced in any Scandinavian country

Directed by Benjamin Christensen, 1922’s Häxan : Witchcraft Through the Ages is a strange combination of documentary and horror, with plenty of dramatizations (both historically-based and fantasy) that chart the evolution of sorcery and witchcraft, while also exploring the superstition and religious indignation that condemned many so-called “witches” to death.

Separated into seven chapters, Häxan begins with a look at ancient beliefs, from what the heavens were made of to the "demons" that walked the earth. From there, the film moves into several dramatized segments, including a witch preparing a love potion for a woman who lusts after a monk (Oscar Stribolt) and even an appearance by the devil himself (played by director Christensen, in some effectively creepy make-up). There are scenes of a witch trial, where an elderly weaver (Maren Pedersen), who was in the wrong place at the wrong time, is dragged before a religious tribunal and accused of putting a hex on a wealthy man. After being tortured, she confesses to bewitching the man, and then proceeds to “name” other witches in her “coven”. The film concludes with an exposé on mental illness, drawing the conclusion that what was once considered witchcraft is now seen as a treatable disease.

Admittedly, I was a bit concerned when Häxan first began. The film’s opening chapter consists of a series of prints, depicting ancient beliefs (like how the Egyptians were convinced the stars were simply lights hanging from the heavens by a rope), spirits, and the occasional demon. This entire sequence, which is nothing more than one still picture after another, is far too dry, and reminded me of the slide shows I was occasionally subjected to in school (and which always put me to sleep). The moment the second chapter got underway, however, my eyes were glued to the screen, partly due to the story being told (a witch at work making potions), but mostly because the imagery was so extreme (the witch, collecting ingredients for her latest concoction, pulls a finger off a decomposing corpse), giving many of these dramatized sequences the look and feel of a horror movie (one scene, in which the devil suddenly pops into view, is still an effective jump scare). Even the film’s various special effects, from stop-motion (including a scene where a small creature breaks through the door) to superimposed images of witches flying through the air on their broom, are pretty damned good. But it’s the movie’s tendency to shock and appall that will really stay with you (in one sequence, a pair of witches squat over pots, urinate into them, then throw their piss at the front door of a person they’re putting a curse on).

Despite its slow start, Häxan : Witchcraft through the Ages proved to be a singularly unique experience, a nightmarish journey into the world of magic and sorcery, as well as a diatribe on man’s inhumanity to man. It’s also one of the most unusual silent films you’ll ever see.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

#1,405. Invasion of the Space Lobsters (2006)

Directed By: Janet Perlman

Starring: Thor Bishopric, Adrien Burhop, Mark Camacho

Trivia: This movie was Distributed by the National Film Board of Canada

I’m having a blast watching the animated shorts in the Animation Express collection, and this latest outing, Invasion of the Space Lobsters, is no exception. A 2006 movie directed by Janet Perlman and distributed by the National Film Board of Canada, Invasion of the Space Lobsters may feature more simplistic animation than either Madame Tutli-Putli or Sleeping Betty, but in the end it has something very important to say about miscommunication.

In a small suburban neighborhood, a father attempts to build a backyard grill as his wife and daughter look on. This quiet domestic scene is interrupted, however, by the sudden appearance of a spaceship (shaped like a fried egg), which lands on their roof. The family, already stunned, is further shocked to discover the ship’s inhabitants are giant lobsters, who promptly set up a microphone and attempt to communicate with the earthlings. Yet while the lobsters appear to be speaking in English, their words make little sense. Before long, the military, as well as the press, arrives on the scene, and, unable to understand the alien’s gibberish, make plans to attack the otherworldly visitors. Fortunately, the father recognizes some of the phrases the lobsters are uttering, leading to a revelation that might just prevent an intergalactic war.

Unlike Madame Tutli-Putli or Sleeping Betty, Invasion of the Space Lobsters looks as if it was designed for children (aside from its lighthearted story, the humor seems to be geared towards kids). That said, its theme, which involves communication (I can’t say more, or else I’ll spoil the ending), will definitely give adults something to snicker about, making it a short film that the entire family can enjoy.

Friday, June 20, 2014

#1,404. Devil Dog: The Hound of Hell (1978)

Directed By: Curtis Harrington

Starring: Richard Crenna, Yvette Mimieux, Kim Richards

Trivia: This marked the 3rd time Kim Richards and Ike Eisenman played brother and sister in a movie

A 1978 made-for-TV movie that debuted on Halloween night, Devil Dog: The Hound of Hell is almost as silly as its title would lead you to believe.

After their beloved dog dies in an accident, the Barry family: dad Mike (Richard Crenna), mom Betty (Yvette Mimieux), and kids Bonnie (Kim Richards) and Charlie (Ike Eisenmann), adopt a puppy from a seemingly friendly fruit vendor (E.G. Armstrong). In reality, though, the fruit vendor is a Satanist, and the puppy was bred during a dark ceremony. Now possessed by a demon, this dog begins to influence members of the Barry family. Only Mike remains free of the dog’s control, and realizing the pooch is a force of evil, sets out to destroy it. But how exactly do you kill the devil?

Due to its limited budget, not to mention the restrictions of network television (the show premiered on CBS), Devil Dog: The Hound of Hell doesn’t feature much on-screen violence (we’re led to believe the Barry’s maid, Maria, played by Tina Minard, meets a fiery end, but we don’t know for sure because we see very little of her death scene). What’s more, the film’s story, about a possessed dog that controls its owners with mind power, is more than a little goofy (as a result, it never really generates any tension). Add in some shoddy special effects (including a late scene where the dog grows to a ridiculous size), and you have a horror movie that’s entirely devoid of thrills.

It's not that Devil Dog: The Hound of Hell has no redeeming qualities whatsoever; I kinda liked the effect that made the dog’s eyes glow, and Richard Crenna does a solid job as the father fighting to save his family, all of whom have fallen under the control of the possessed pooch. Also keep a look-out for Hammer Horror’s Martine Beswick, who appears briefly in the ritual scene. But these few aspects aside, Devil Dog: The Hound of Hell falls way short of the mark.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

#1,403. Duck Amuck (1953)

Directed By: Chuck Jones

Starring: Mel Blanc

Trivia: In animation historian Jerry Beck's 1994 poll of animators, film historians and directors, this was rated the 2nd greatest cartoon of all time

Ah, Looney Tunes! When it comes to cartoons, they are, in my opinion, the top of the heap. Back when I was a kid, our local UHF station would show Looney Tunes in the morning before I went to school, and again in the afternoon when I returned home, and as a result, I saw pretty much every short they ever produced. I knew at some point during this challenge I’d want to include a Looney Tunes cartoon, yet struggled with which one it should be. I’m a fan of What’s Opera, Doc and One Froggy Evening, both of which are considered classics, but when it came right down to it, there really was only one choice: 1953’s Duck Amuck.

As Duck Amuck opens, Daffy Duck (voiced by Mel Blanc) is dressed as a Musketeer, preparing for a sword fight. But as he moves forward, lunging with his foil, the background suddenly disappears, leaving the unfortunate duck stranded in what looks like a white void. A slightly perturbed Daffy turns to the screen and, addressing the animator, asks for some scenery. After the artist’s pencil does its magic, the befuddled duck finds himself standing on a farm. So, he removes his Musketeer outfit and puts on some overalls, only to discover the background has changed yet again. From there, Duck Amuck becomes a battle of wills between its star and the unseen animator, who, aside from changing the scenery, also does a job on Daffy himself, taking away his voice and, at one point, even altering his appearance.

Duck Amuck is 7 minutes of pure hilarity, featuring one of Looney Tunes’ most beloved characters. Daffy, who, throughout the film tries his best to adapt to what’s going on, suffers a number of humiliations, like having the screen collapse in on him and falling into the water when the animator draws an ocean scene, but fails to give him a boat. Much of the humor comes from Daffy losing his patience, lashing out at his mysterious foe, yet what I always liked about Duck Amuck was how it broke down that fourth wall, with the lead character himself realizing he’s nothing more than a mixture of ink and paint.

With so many great characters, including Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd, Porky Pig, and the Road Runner (according to my mother, when I was a toddler my favorite was Yosemite Sam), Looney Tunes set the standard for animated shorts, an industry they dominated for damn near 50 years. In all honesty, I don’t think I’ve seen one Looney Tunes that didn’t make me laugh, but of them all, Duck Amuck is hands-down my favorite.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

#1,402. Dredd (2012)

Directed By: Pete Travis

Starring: Karl Urban, Olivia Thirlby, Lena Headey

Tag line: "Judgment is coming"

Trivia: Duncan Jones was offered the director's chair, but turned it down

Having never read the comic, all I ever knew of Judge Dredd came courtesy of Sylvester Stallone’s 1995 movie, which many Dredd faithful have criticized for the liberties it took (the chief complaint being that Stallone, who plays the lead, removed his helmet several times throughout the film, something Judge Dredd supposedly never does). By all accounts, director Pete Travis’s 2012 movie Dredd finally sets the record straight, giving the world a cinematic version of the character that honors the source material. 

Whether this is true or not, I can’t say, but the one thing I do know is that Dredd is an amazing action film!

It’s the not-too-distant future, and America has descended into chaos. While most of the country lies in ruin, a gargantuan metropolis known as Mega-City One spans the Eastern seaboard, from what was once Boston all the way to the remnants of Washington, D.C.,

Mega-City One is home to 800 million people, and to handle the thousands of crimes that occur there on a daily basis, the powers-that-be have created the “Judges”, a special law enforcement unit that has been granted absolute power; they not only arrest lawbreakers, but immediatwely pass judgment and even sentence them. If the crime is severe enough, the Judges can also act as executioners.

Of all the Judges, Judge Dredd (Karl Urban) is the most feared, a no-nonsense lawman who always gets his criminal. It’s because of this that Dredd is asked to assess a brand new rookie named Anderson (Olivia Thirby), who, despite having failed the aptitude test, has a psychic ability that could prove useful during investigations.

For her first assignment, Anderson accompanies Dredd to the Peach-Tree, one of the city’s largest apartment buildings, to investigate a triple homicide that somehow involves a new super-drug known as “Slo Mo”, which dulls an addict’s senses and perceptions, making everything around them appear to be moving in slow motion. 

Shortly after arriving at the Peach-Tree, Dredd and Anderson apprehend Kay (Wood Harris), a henchman of powerful drug lord “Ma-Ma” (Lena Headey). Dredd intends to take Kay to HQ for questioning, but before he and Anderson can leave with their prisoner, Ma-Ma orders the entire building locked down, blocking all the exits with blast doors and trapping the two Judges inside. What’s more, Ma-Ma, who occupies the top floor of the Peach-Tree, makes a general announcement to the whole building that the Judges are to be killed, promising a reward to whoever finishes them off. 

On the run for their lives, and with hundreds of lowlifes now gunning for them, Dredd and Anderson must find a way to survive long enough to end Ma-Ma’s reign of terror.

Urban is convincingly intense as the title character, who, in the actor's capable hands, comes across as a total bad-ass. Preferring to work alone, Dredd is none too pleased that he's been teamed up with a raw recruit. When the two of them first set out, Dredd rattles off a list of offenses, from not following his orders to losing a weapon, that would amount to Anderson immediately failing the assessment. Dredd then asks, matter-of-factly, “You ready, rookie?” When Anderson says she is, Dredd replies, quite curtly, “The assessment starts now”. 

On the streets, Urban's Dredd is even more extreme, and doesn’t hesitate for a moment when passing judgment or carrying out a sentence. To avoid capture, one perpetrator takes a hostage. Not skipping a beat, Dredd makes "a deal" with this frightened individual, offering him life in prison without parole, but only if he lets the hostage go immediately. Unlike Stallone, Urban never takes the helmet off. But then, he doesn’t have to; we don’t need to see Dredd’s face to know how seriously he takes his job. We hear it in his voice, and we see it in the way he carries out his duties.

Along with Urban’s strong performance, Dredd boasts plenty of crazy action scenes, the craziest of which involves a high-powered assault cannon that tears an entire block of the Peach Tree apart, killing dozens of residents. As awesome as this sequence is, it’s but one of many ultra-violent, powerful confrontations to be found throughout the movie. 

I have no idea if any sequels to Dredd are in the works, but if there’s a modern action hero who deserves his own franchise, Judge Dredd is the one!

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

#1,401. 8 Mile (2002)

Directed By: Curtis Hanson

Starring: Eminem, Brittany Murphy, Mekhi Phifer

Tag line: "Find Your Voice"

Trivia: actor Gary Sinese was the original choice to play Greg, the boyfriend of Rabbit's mother

Loosely based on the experiences of its star, Eminem, 2002’s 8 Mile is a tough, unflinching look at life in the poorer sections of Detroit, where a freestyle rap battle can mean the difference between fame and oblivion.

Jimmy Smith (Eminem), aka “B-Rabbit”, has hit rock bottom. Forced to move back home with his mother (Kim Basinger), who has shacked up with her much-younger boyfriend (Michael Shannon), Rabbit dreams of a better life. 

One way for him to get it is to win an underground rap battle, which are emceed by his good friend Future (Mekhi Phifer). Yet, despite being a talented rapper, Rabbit chokes whenever he takes the stage, a victim of his own insecurities. Not even Alex (Brittany Murphy), the new girl in his life, can give Rabbit the confidence he so desperately needs. 

Will Rabbit overcome his fears, or is he destined to spend the remainder of his days toiling away in the section of Detroit the locals call “8 Mile”?

8 Mile adheres to a formula we’ve seen countless times before: the underdog trying to conquer his fears and make his dreams come true. Yet despite the predictability of it all, 8 Mile works, due in large part to the film’s star, Eminem. By playing a character very much like himself, Eminem brings an authenticity  that’s usually lacking in movies like this one. 

Equal to its star's performance is the film’s gritty, urban feel. Director Curtis Hanson takes us into the back alleys and abandoned buildings of Detroit, and in so doing intensifies the movie’s overall realism.  There are moments in this film that reminded me of the first half of 1976’s Rocky, when Stallone's title character was walking the streets of Philadelphia. 

There are other aspects of 8 Mile that impressed me as well, such as the fine performances of Mekhi Phifer as Future, the one man who pushes Rabbit to succeed; Kim Basinger as Rabbit’s somewhat self-absorbed mother, who isn’t above discussing her sex life with her son; and Brittany Murphy as Rabbit’s girlfriend, who is a little more ambitious than even he realizes. On top of this, the rap battles had an incredible energy, as did the film’s soundtrack (Eminem won the Best Song Oscar that year for his brilliant “Lose Yourself”). 

But in the end, it was Eminem himself, coupled with the city of Detroit, that made 8 Mile the excellent film it is.

So, for those who might argue that 8 Mile is formulaic, I can’t disagree with you. But thanks to its cast and crew, we see that even an overused formula  sometimes makes for an inspiring motion picture.

Monday, June 16, 2014

#1,400. Shrek (2001)

Directed By: Andrew Adamson, Vicky Jenson

Starring: Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, Cameron Diaz

Tag line: "The greatest fairy tale never told"

Trivia: Originally, Chris Farley was cast as the title character, and even recorded 80-90% of the dialogue before dying unexpectedly in 1997

I first caught Shrek during its theatrical run, when my family was vacationing in Wildwood, New Jersey. Deciding against spending another afternoon on the beach, we drove into Cape May, and after doing a little shopping headed over to the Bayshore 8 theater (which isn’t there anymore) to see a movie. It would be our youngest son’s first experience watching a film on the big screen (he was two at the time), so my wife and I settled on Shrek, and as we handed our tickets to the usher, he looked down at them and smiled.

Keep an eye out for the ‘Muffin Man’ scene”, he told us. “It’s hilarious”.

He was right… it was. But then, most of Shrek made us laugh... a lot!

Shrek (voiced by Mike Myers) is a happy ogre. Aside from being one of the most feared creatures in the forest, he owns a prime bit of real estate (for an ogre, anyway): a messy swamp, complete with a mud bath and all the bugs he can eat. 

His serenity is threatened, however, when a slew of fairy tale creatures moves into his domicile, having been banished there by Lord Farquard (John Lithgow), who tossed them out of his kingdom. With a chatty donkey (Eddie Murphy) in tow, Shrek sets off for the kingdom of Duloc to get his swamp back, and once there makes a deal with Lord Farquard: if Shrek rescues the Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz), who has been locked away for years in a tower guarded by a fire-breathing dragon, Lord Farquard will give him the deed to his swamp. 

With Donkey’s help, Shrek manages to free the Princess, and heads back to Duloc to present her to Lord Farquard, who intends to marry her. During the return journey, however, the normally reclusive ogre develops feelings of his own for the beautiful princess, who, as it turns out, is hiding a pretty big secret of her own.

Produced by Dreamworks, Shrek plays like a twisted fairy tale, with an ogre as the hero and a vertically challenged Prince as the villain. More than this, though, it’s a marvelously inventive comedy, with vibrant animation and some incredibly endearing characters. Myers is spot-on as Shrek, sporting a Scottish accent that somehow fits the character to a “T” (a co-worker once told me that, while she was watching Shrek, she couldn’t stop thinking of Fat Bastard, yet another Scot portrayed by Myers in the Austin Powers series. Oddly enough, now, whenever I re-watch those movies, I can’t stop thinking of Shrek). 

In support of Myers, John Lithgow is at his maniacal best as Lord Farquard, who, despite being the heavy, never fails to bring a smile to our face; in the above-mentioned “Muffin Man” sequence, Lord Farquard is torturing a Gingerbread Man, trying to extract information. Diaz is also well-cast as the Princess who proves to be much more interesting than standard, run-of-the-mill animated royalty. THat said, the character who will make you laugh the hardest is Eddie Murphy's Donkey, the motor-mouthed sidekick who, from the word “go”, is a thorn in Shrek’s side. One scene in particular, when Donkey and Shrek are approaching the tower to rescue Fiona, had me chuckling uncontrollably for about five minutes. 

Along with the laughs, Shrek also provides a few genuinely touching moments, most dealing with the budding romance between Shrek and the Princess; a late montage, set to Rufus Wainwright’s soulful rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”, is particularly moving. But it's the comedy that will stay with you. This film actually gets funnier each time I watch it! 

Shrek is one of my 5 favorite animated movies of the 21st century, and I predict it will occupy a spot on that list for many years to come.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

#1,399. The Curse of the Werewolf (1961)

Directed By: Terence Fisher

Starring: Oliver Reed, Clifford Evans, Yvonne Romain


Trivia: This was the only werewolf movie Hammer ever produced

For the second day in a row, I’m sitting down with a Hammer horror film, only this time my choice of movie had more to do with its star than the studio that produced it.

Directed by Terence Fisher, 1961’s The Curse of the Werewolf is the story of Leon (played as an adult by Oliver Reed), a Spaniard whose mute mother (Yvonne Romain) died after giving birth to him on Christmas Day. He’s taken in by the kindly Don Alfredo Corledo (Clifford Evans) and his wife Teresa (Hira Talfrey), but as Leon grows, he displays an unusual thirst for animal’s blood, an urge that, thanks to the love and patience of his adopted parents, he eventually learns to control. Once he’s an adult, Leon sets out to find a job, and ends up working at a vineyard owned by Don Fernando Gomez (Ewen Solon). Over time, Leon falls in love with Don Gomez’s daughter, Cristina (Catherine Feller), who is already engaged. Yet as his feelings for Cristina grow, Leon slowly succumbs to his animalistic nature, and must face the unhappy truth that he is, and probably always has been, a werewolf.

Leon’s tragic tale is a fascinating one, but in reality, only a portion of the film is dedicated to his story. The entire first half of The Curse of the Werewolf takes us back in time to reveal its main character’s lineage: Leon's actual father, a beggar (Richard Wordsworth), was thrown in jail by a corrupt Marquis (Anthony Dawson), and, after many years behind bars, raped the jailer’s daughter (the mute girl who would become Leon’s mother). Performance-wise, these opening moments are strong: Wordsworth does a fine job as the naïve beggar, yet the strongest character early on is the villainous Marquis, a loathsome man who ridicules the Beggar, then, on a whim, tosses him in prison and forgets about him. Despite the fact it doesn’t feature a single werewolf, the opening of The Curse of the Werewolf does manage to flesh out Leon’s family history, revealing the unfortunate set of circumstances that contributed to his “condition”.

What drew me to The Curse of the Werewolf, though, was Oliver Reed, in what would prove to be his first starring role in a major film. Having impressed me with his performances in such movies as Oliver! and The Brood, I was anxious to see how he’d portray a werewolf, and I’m happy to report that I wasn’t disappointed; aside from the role’s physical demands (which the actor handles with ease), Reed successfully conveys the inner turmoil his character experiences after learning the truth about himself (the scenes immediately following his first adult “transformation”, during which he kills several people, are particularly grueling, with Leon, a normally docile man, forced to confront his violent nature). With its stunning period set pieces and overall dark tone, The Curse of the Werewolf is unmistakably a Hammer film, but in the end, it’s the lead actor who makes it unforgettable.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

#1,398. The Brides of Dracula (1960)

Directed By: Terence Fisher

Starring: Peter Cushing, Martita Hunt, Yvonne Monlaur

Tag line: "He Turned Innocent Beauty Into Unspeakable Horror"

Trivia: Christopher Lee was approached to reprise his role as Dracula for this film, but turned it down. As a result, the script had to be reshaped

Hammer’s follow-up to their 1958 hit Horror of Dracula, The Brides of Dracula introduces us to a completely different vampire: Baron Meinster (David Peel), a Transylvanian aristocrat who, at the start of the movie, is being held against his will, chained to the wall in a back room of his palace by his mother, the Baroness (Martita Hunt). Marianne (Yvonne Monlaur), a pretty French teacher who was invited by the Baroness to spend the night, takes pity on the Baron and helps him escape. Soon after, Marianne flees the castle and passes out in the surrounding woods, where she’s spotted by Dr. Van Helsing (Peter Cushing). Having come to Transylvania at the request of the local priest (Fred Johnson), who has his suspicions about the Baron and Baroness, Van Helsing soon realizes he’s dealing with another undead monster. Still unaware that the Baron is a vampire, Marianne falls in love with the Baron, and eventually accepts his marriage proposal. Can Van Helsing defeat Baron Meinster in time, or will Marianne become another victim, forced to spend an eternity as one of the vampire’s brides?

While Christopher Lee, so effectively creepy as the title character in Horror of Dracula, is nowhere to be found, Hammer’s other stalwart, Peter Cushing, reprises the role of Van Helsing, giving The Brides of Dracula a link to the previous movie while turning in yet another of his many solid performances (he plays the character as if he were a 19th century super hero). The film’s later scenes, where Van Helsing faces off against the Baron, are easily the best, culminating in a showdown that features plenty of interesting twists. Fans of fast-paced horror will likely enjoy the second half of The Brides of Dracula, but odds are their attention will wander a few times during the film’s first half, which is long on dialogue and short on action. As for David Peel, he does a fine job as the sophisticated Baron, yet isn’t a very convincing vampire (Lee’s menacing stare in Horror of Dracula could send a shiver up your spine, whereas Peel is far too charming to give anyone the creeps).

Still, with its gothic atmosphere and impressive sets, coupled with Cushing’s performance, The Brides of Dracula proves to be a decent entry in Hammer’s Dracula series, and a good example of what put the studio on the map in the first place.

Friday, June 13, 2014

#1,397. Die Hard (1988)

Directed By: John McTiernan

Starring: Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman, Bonnie Bedelia

Tag line: "It will blow you through the back wall of the theater!"

Trivia: Because he had appeared in 1968's The Detective, which was also based on a novel by Richard Thorp, Fox was contractually obligated to offer Frank Sinatra the lead role in this film. He turned it down

I’m watching Die Hard a tad early (or a tad late, depending on how you look at things). Seeing as it's story takes place at Christmas time, this 1988 action classic has been a Holiday fixture around my house for years (I normally wait until the middle or end of December to watch it, by which point I’ve had my fill of Holiday cheer and am ready for a kick-ass movie). This past December, I relied on Lethal Weapon (another “sort-of” Christmas movie) to break up the sugary-sweet monotony, but most years, it's Die Hard that gets the job done.

It’s Christmas time, and New York cop John McClane (Bruce Willis) has just arrived in L.A. to reconcile with his estranged wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia). Catching a ride with limo driver Argyle (De'voreaux White), McClane makes his way to the Nakatomi building, where Holly’s company (which is headquartered there) is having their annual Christmas party on the 30th floor. 

But the couple’s happy reunion is cut short when a group of terrorists, led by Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman), bursts into the Nakatomi and starts taking hostages, one of whom is Holly. 

McClane, who was in the bathroom changing at the time, sneaks away to do a little spying on Gruber, and manages to uncover his plan: to steal over $600 million in bonds that are neatly tucked away in the company’s safe. 

Yet what Gruber didn’t count on was McClane, a feisty city cop who, hiding throughout the building, knocks off a few of his henchmen while also alerting the police. Over the course of the evening, McClane does what he can to disrupt the terrorists' grand scheme. But how long will it be before a confused Gruber figures out who McClane is, and why he’s there, a revelation that would immediately put Holly in the greatest of danger?

As action movies go, Die Hard is a perfect storm, a stunt-filled shoot-‘em-up with a great lead character, a superb villain, and tons of excitement to get our collective pulses pounding. Through much of the movie, Willis' John McClane has the upper hand on Gruber, staying one step ahead of the terrorists and even generating a few laughs as he does so (after killing one baddie, McClane paints a note on his dead body, a message for Gruber that reads “Now I have a machine gun. Ho Ho Ho”). 
Alan Rickman is equally good in the role of Hans Gruber, a cold, calculating thief who has meticulously planned everything out, only to have his perfect scheme threatened by McClane. 

Also good are Reginald VelJohnson as the policeman on ground level who keeps McClane abreast (via walkie-talkie) of what the police and F.B.I. are planning to do; and William Atherton as a reporter whose tenacity nearly leads to disaster. But in the final scheme of things, Die Hard is the “Willis & Rickman show”. 

Sure, the action is insane; along with all the gunfights and explosions, there’s a thrilling sequence involving a fire hose. Yet what makes Die Hard so very intense is the game of cat and mouse that develops between McClane and Gruber, leaving us wondering at every turn which one will prove to be the cat.

The summer of 1988 was a great season for film buffs; I was working at McDonald’s at the time, and luckily, many of my co-workers were also movie fans. Aside from Die Hard, the group of us checked out Eddie Murphy’s brilliant Coming to America; the John Candy / Dan Aykroyd comedy The Great Outdoors; and the Robert DeNiro / Charles Grodin buddy adventure Midnight Run
I also caught a couple of films with my father and brother that same summer: the raunchy baseball sex comedy Bull Durham, and the hilarious A Fish Called Wanda

All are entertaining in their own right, but the best of the bunch is easily Die Hard, a movie that is - and quite possibly always will be - the quintessential action flick.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

#1,396. That's Entertainment, Part II (1976)

Directed By: Gene Kelly

Starring: Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly

Tag line: "The Best Entertainment since That's Entertainment!"

Trivia: One of only two films in which Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly danced together (the other was 1946's Ziegfeld Follies)

Two years after the Hollywood-themed documentary That’s Entertainment was a box-office sensation, it’s sequel, That’s Entertainment, Part II, hit the scene. Unlike the original, which had a number of celebrity hosts, That’s Entertainment, Part II featured only two: Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, who, along with presenting the various movie clips that play throughout, also do a little singing and dancing of their own (Astaire, who was in his mid-70s at the time, moved like a man half that age). And, of course, we have the films themselves, excerpts from some of the best that Hollywood of yesteryear had to offer.

As with That’s Entertainment, this sequel focuses primarily on the great musicals that Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer produced over the years, from classics like Singin' in the Rain (the excellent “Good Morning” routine) and Meet Me in St. Louis (the incredibly touching “Have Yourself Merry Little Christmas” scene), to such lesser-known pictures as 1948’s The Pirate, in which Gene Kelly and Judy Garland belt out “Be a Clown”; and Kiss Me Kate, a 1953 musical that co-starred future director / choreographer Bob Fosse (the selected clip has Fosse and a handful of others performing a hip, jazz-inspired dance sequence). What’s more, an entire section of That’s Entertainment, Part II is dedicated to the black and white era, with excerpts from Vincente Minnelli’s Cabin in the Sky, as well as a key moment from 1943’s Girl Crazy, in which Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney sing the well-known song, “I Got Rhythm”. Also getting his own segment is Frank Sinatra (his performance of “Ol’ Man River”, from 1946’s ‘Til the Clouds Roll By, is truly impressive), and we’re even treated to a sequence from 1939’s Ninotchka, where we get to see Greta Garbo do something she rarely did on-screen: dance!

Along with the musicals, That’s Entertainment, Part II changes gears a bit by concentrating on some non-musical films as well, including comedies (a bit lifted from Bud Abbott and Lou Costello in Hollywood is hilarious, and the Marx Brothers’ famous stateroom scene from A Night at the Opera is always fun to watch) and dramas (aside from Grand Hotel, we see the now-famous finale from Gone With the Wind). This added content, during which the movie also focuses on the careers of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, takes the That’s Entertainment series in a different, yet ultimately satisfying, direction.